Home to eagles, source of ships’ masts in earlier times, beloved for its beauty, and driver of the development of Wexford County, the Eastern white pine holds a place of honor here in Northern Michigan. And it’s not only us northerners who value it; on March 4, 1955, the Michigan Legislature adopted a resolution declaring that the Eastern white pine is Michigan’s state tree.
Is it a white pine?
With its distinctive, stately form, the Eastern white pine is easily recognizable in the landscape. On large trees, the upper branches point upwards, the middle branches are parallel to the ground, and the lower branches point downwards. Unlike other pines in our area, white pines are not self-pruning — they keep their lower branches as they mature. Up close, it’s even easier to identify white pines. Pine trees have needles that are attached to the stem in bundles. Only white pine has five needles in a bundle. The other pines commonly found in our area (red, jack, and Scotch pines) have only two or three needles in their bundles. Another aid to their identification is their height. They are one of the tallest trees to grow in our forests. There is a white pine tree at Hartwick Pines State Park that is more than 160 feet tall that is believed to be the tallest tree in Michigan.
We often hear about the Boston Tea Party as one of the defining events that led to the American Revolution. Even earlier than that was the Pine Riot in New Hampshire. The Journal of the American Revolution notes that in 1722, the New Hampshire General Court passed a law making it illegal to cut down any white pine tree larger than twelve inches in diameter. These trees were reserved for the Royal Navy and were to be used for masts for His Majesty’s fleet. In 1772, New Hampshire colonists who had cut down some white pine trees were arrested, provoking a riot in the town of South Weare. It was one of the first acts of rebellion that would eventually lead to the American War of Independence.
The tree that helped build Cadillac
According to the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, the detailed notes taken by the land surveyors included information on the location, species, and diameter of each tree used to mark section lines and section corners. The surveyors also commented on the general quality of timber along each section line. Biologists from the MNFI developed a method to translate those survey notes into a digital map. The maps they created show that there was a 10-mile wide swath of forest dominated by white pine that extended from Cadillac to Lake City. Between 1870 and 1890, most of these pines were harvested and turned into lumber. The harvesting and milling of the white pine timber helped to establish the towns of Cadillac and Jennings.
White pines are still harvested today and used for interior millwork such as window sashes. The wood is also valued for use in timber frame buildings because it is strong for its weight, it doesn’t twist as much as some hardwoods, and it has strong cross-grain fibers that prevent it from checking too much. White pines are also grown for use as Christmas trees, as they have very good needle retention. However, because their branches are so flexible, only light-weight ornaments can be hung on them, and that limits their popularity.
Deer need thermal cover in the winter, and white pines that are ten to twenty years old can provide that. If you enjoy seeing large birds of prey, you might want to spend some time near white pines. They provide excellent perch trees for raptors, and eagles often make their nests in white pine trees.
Establishing new stands of white pines can be done, but white pines should be planted in the shade of other trees to reduce potential damage from the white pine weevil. The weevils kill the leading shoot, called the leader, of the pine trees, resulting in trees with crooked stems and large side branches which have tried to become the leader. The weevil prefers to attack white pines that are in full sunlight. For that reason, the Wexford Conservation District recommends that white pine not be planted in open fields, but rather in places where larger trees can provide some shade.
Theresa Williams is the Executive Director for the Wexford Conservation District. You can reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, by phone at (231) 775-7681, ext. 3, or at the office located at 7192 East 34 Road in Cadillac.